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Mike Smith Day celebrated

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Pictured are Gov. Susana Martinez and Mike Smith Sunday in Ruidoso. The day was set aside to honor the hall of fame jockey. (J.T. Keith Photo)

It was a typical day at the race track for Mike Smith. Like two of his races in the Triple Crown, Smith had to overcome weather. On Mike Smith Day on Sunday at Ruidoso Downs Racetrack, it started out overcast and there was a drizzle in the middle of the day.

The races were called after the fifth race because of hail. It hailed for 20 minutes. Enough time to halt the action and allow Smith to come up to the third floor of the Ruidoso Downs Racetrack and share smiles, hugs and take pictures with some 200 family members and friends celebrating his day and life’s achievements.

“Being back in New Mexico, being back here to see my family and friends, it was even more emotional than I thought,” Smith said in front of a large gathering of media and fans. “I haven’t stopped crying since I’ve been here. I’m overwhelmed by all of this.”

Smith, who is from Dexter, is already in the Hall of Fame, and last month became the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown at age 52. Smith rode Justify into history on June 9 at the Belmont Stakes to capture the Triple Crown.

Smith was not only there to receive the Proclamation of Mike Smith Day from Gov. Susan Martinez, but he turned his day into a way to give back to the racing community and help raise money for the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund. Smith took pictures and signed autographs to help raise money.

“It is a very special place for all of us riders,” Smith said. “It (an accident) can happen to anyone at any time and any place. This is only one of the ways we can raise money for them. There are a lot of things that we do in trying to raise money for them (jockeys) and this is one of them. I try to give back to my fellow riders.”

Smith, whose grandfather Willie owned the Upper Valley Bar on Doniphan in El Paso, Texas several years ago, won his first race at Santa Fe Downs in New Mexico at the age of 16. He also rode at Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino early in his career. He won the 2009 Sunland Derby aboard Kelly Leak.

During a question-and-answer session, a reporter asked why he mentioned that Justify broke out of the gate like he was at Ruidoso going 440.

“I’m not sure why I said it,” Smith said. “Ruidoso was part of my life growing up. I galloped horses there and it’s part of my history, where I learned to ride. Ruidoso and New Mexico are where I grew up, they have always been a big part of me.”

On Sunday, Smith talked about a horse with New Mexico ties, Mine That Bird. Smith rode Mine That Bird to a second-place finish in the Preakness Stakes in 2009. Mine That Bird won the Kentucky Derby that year with jockey Calvin Borel. The horse raced twice at Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino prior to his Kentucky Derby win.

“Mine That Bird was an underrated horse,” Smith said. “He was a tremendous horse. I’m grateful I got to ride him.”

New Mexico Congressman Steve Pearce presented Smith with a Congressional Certificate and United States Flag that was flown over the U.S. Capitol. Pearce recently honored Smith by offering a floor speech in the U.S. House of Representatives recognizing his achievements.

“He’s a great ambassador for the state of New Mexico and represents what is good about people,” Pearce said. “We want to recognize what he’s accomplished.”

Ray Smith, Mike’s younger brother, by three years, feels nothing but pride in all that Mike has accomplished. With a lot of families, there tends to be jealousy, but not in this relationship. Both brothers talk or text every day. Ray is a civil engineer in Phoenix, Arizona.

“It is awesome,” Ray said. “To see all that he has accomplished and to see his dream come true, something he has been wanting since he could even say Triple Crown, that’s something he has always wanted. It is such a blessing. He’s such a hard worker, I know how passionate he is about his craft. There’s nobody that works harder at it than he does. He has sacrificed a lot and a lot of his time with us (family). It has been awesome and surreal.”

After the last race of the day, Gov. Martinez proclaimed Sunday, July 8 as “Mike E. Smith Day.”

“From now on July 8th,” Smith said, “everybody in New Mexico gets a day off,” as the crowd laughed.